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NASCAR’s regular season champion at risk of making dubious history at Bristol

Martin Truex has seven points to make up on Saturday night in the Bristol Night Race or he will make a bit of NASCAR Cup Series playoff history.

Never before, in the decade-long history of the current championship format, has either the regular season champion or top-seeded contender failed to advance to the second round. Due to a series of unfortunate events over the past two weekends at Darlington and Kansas, the 2017 champion could become both.

At Darlington, Truex suffered a loose right rear tire that eliminated him from contention and left him in 18th by the end of the race. At Kansas, he ran over something before the race and his tire went flat just three laps into the race and sent him hard into the wall, finishing last as a result.

That’s how a league-best 29-point advantage turned into a seven-point deficit with only one race left in the first round that will determine his fate.

“It’s a terrible spot to be in,” Truex said. “Last week, we didn’t even get a chance to race, which was disappointing.

“I felt like it was probably the best car I had on a mile-and-a-half all year long. I was really excited about it after coming off a tough Darlington race, and then two laps in, you feel like you’re in trouble with a flat tire and it turns out you ran something over. It’s terrible bad luck. I don’t know what you do about it. You just move on and do the best you can tomorrow night. Obviously, it’s a bad spot to be in.”

Making matters worse is that Truex will be the first to admit that Bristol has not been one of his best tracks over the years. The case could be made that it is his statistical worst, with a few caveats, and now it’s the venue that will decide his championship fate on Saturday.

“I think it has been a lot of different issues over the years,” Truex said. “We’ve run well here at times. We’ve certainly struggled at times, but I think everybody has. This place is tricky with the spray, and the groove moving around. We won’t race where we practice. It’s a little bit of a challenge there, but all of the times we’ve run here it’s always been a flat tire or a loose wheel.

“I can’t even use both hands to count all of the times that has happened. It’s just been a tough place (so) hopefully no bad luck tomorrow night and we can go just have a smooth race and hopefully have the performance to get the job done.”

If he doesn’t get the job, and becomes the first regular season and top-seeded driver to be eliminated in the first round, does that mean the system is broken?

“I don’t think so, we just had two terrible races,” Truex said. “That’s kind of the way it is. You can’t afford to have bad races and we’ve had two of the three so far. Hopefully tomorrow night goes better.”

Complicating matters for Truex is that, short of winning, he doesn’t control his own destiny as he could finish seventh and still be eliminated if those he is chasing all finish ahead of him and score roughly the same amount of stage points.

Conversely, Truex could set himself up positively by scoring a good number of stage points in the first half and then might be able to top-15 his way into the next round. If his rivals score all the stage points, and he doesn’t, Truex may have to win at Bristol for the first time to advance.

“You kind of just take it as it comes,” Truex said. “Right now, we know where we stand and what we have to do, but things change and if things change in a major way, they will let me know, but we just have to go race and do the best job that we can do.”

Truex also has a reputation as a super conservative, very clean driver, and that may have to change on Saturday night at the high-banked short track. He might have to use the bumper.

“It’s possible,” he says.

Is he comfortable with that?

“No, of course not (but) I’m not really good at hypotheticals, either,” he said with a laugh. “We will see how it plays out tomorrow night and what position we are in and what needs to be done and go from there and make a decision on the fly.”

Related: Major change coming to NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2024

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.